Last week was an important one for the reparations movement. Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice released a long-awaited report on the University’s connections to slavery (and I hasten to add, anti-slavery) and made some suggestions about what to do about it.
Universities are getting into the act of studying their connections to slavery as well. Graduate students at Yale University released a lengthy report in 2001. Yale University Historian David Brion Davis, one of our nation’s most distinguished historians and a huge figure in slavery studies, has been somewhat critical of the report. (You may be interested in Davis' new book Inhuman Bondage. Other crucial works include The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, which won a Bancroft Prize in 1975 and The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967.) At my own University of Alabama, there was discussion of these issues in 2004. At UNC, there was an important exhibit in the fall of 2005 and at UVA, there was talk last spring of its connections to slavery.
Brown University’s report is by far the most comprehensive and authoritative of any institution so far. They did it right. The Committee was inspired by, it seems to me, two events. First, David Horowitz’ ad “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is A Bad Idea--And Racist, Too,” which he placed in the Brown Daily Herald back in April 2001. Then ensued a controversy on campus. And Brown University President Ruth Simmons’ desire to have an authoritative account of Brown’s connections to slavery.
Brown did what academics do: study, reseach, talk, and write. Brown’s Steering Committee spent more than two years taking evidence about the University’s connections to slavery and the place of slavery in Rhode Island more generally. They brought a diverse set of scholars to campus. A distinguished group of Brown faculty and students researched and wrote a lengthy report.
It’s a beautifully written report, which I think is a model of historical writing. (I've commented previously on the first line of Marshall Sahlins' How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Instance. Check out the first line of Brown's report: "Let us begin with a clock." And then follows an engaging vignette about a clock and its connections to the slave trade and to Brown.... Beautiful.) What I particularly like about the report is the way it integrates historical evidence with discussion of contemporary moral issues. It is unpopular among historians to write for the present. But I think such an approach is exactly appropriate in these kinds of cases, where we want to know about the connections of the past to the present. Perhaps one of the many results of the report will be a shift in historical writing, which encourages more explicit connections of findings about the past to the present. (For another example of this, you might enjoy Linda Gordon’s Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. )
Close observers of Brown and Rhode Island history knew the key details. (You might enjoy Joanne Pope Melish’s important book on slavery in Rhode Island, Disowning Slavery). But much of this is new, particularly the emphasis on the multiple ways that Rhode Island’s economy was connected to the products of slaves’ labor and the complex positions that the Brown family played in the slave trade, as well as the abolition movement. One of the most haunting parts of the report is the discussion of the 1763-64 voyage of the slave trading ship Sally. The records of the disastrous voyage are chilling, to say the least.
Brown deserves credit for its role in the anti-slavery movement. One important–and underappreciated story–relates to Brown’s President Francis Wayland. Wayland wrote the leading moral philosophy text in the antebellum period. In the 1840s Wayland debated slavery with South Carolina minister Richard Fuller. Wayland took a courageous, public stance against slavery. Brown should be given credit for its role in opposing slavery.
Then there’s the question of what we make of this now? Much of what they propose is further education; that’s always a good bet. I think there’s some good from having a fuller, more complete history. However, I think it’s important here because it details the ways in which great institutions of the past are connected to slavery–and how when we begin to look, we see that system seemingly everywhere. I hope to talk soon about the connections of some other great educational institutions to slavery.
For me, however, the most moving part of the story is that it is a deeply American story: people whose names we will never know labored under harsh conditions and suffered mightly. The money made off of that inhuman system was used to fund a university, which–even in the years before the Civil War–was part of the movement for our liberation. And in recent years, Brown University’s students have benefitted our country in incalculable ways. Thus, the products of an inhumane system have been turned to a positive use. I think that is a central story for us Americans: people make sacrifices for the improvement of our country. They will never reap the benefits, but the dream of a better and more humane country lives on. Through the sacrifices of nameless people, we are moving steadily towards that dream.
I have some more considered thoughts on this in Reparations Pro and Con–executive summary here.
I will have a lot more thoughts on the dream of equality and the connections between the African American community and our formal constitutional law in a while. Precis here.
Some excellent articles on the Steering Committee are in the New York Times digital edition and InsiderHigherEd.com.
Also, Robin Lenhardt (who is a trustee of Brown) is talking about the report over at blackprof.
Here's a very fine article on the reaction to the report, from the Brown Daily Herald. I'm very positive about the report and its potential. We're already seeing a movement for other schools to do the same.
Alfred L. Brophy